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Backyard Grilling Tips from Top San Diego Chefs

Local grill masters Richard Blais, Sam “The Cooking Guy” Zien, Jeffrey Strauss, Tim Kolanko, Kelli Crosson, and Ryan Dzierzawski share pointers to turn even the most amateur backyard cooks into well-seasoned pros

Chef Tim Kolanko of Urban Kitchen Group
Image Credits Photography by Vincent Knakal

Nothing says summer quite like a sizzling steak, a tender piece of fish, or lobster tails grilled to perfection. So, we connect with some of the top BBQ toques in town including Richard Blais, Sam “The Cooking Guy” Zien, Jeffrey Strauss, Tim Kolanko, Kelli Crosson, and Ryan Dzierzawski.

Whoever said “Too many cooks spoil the broth” — or the grill? Not The Grill at Torrey Pines, which this summer hosts “Playing with Fire,” a seasonal grilling series in collaboration with some of the hottest chefs — and brewers — in San Diego. Recently, Executive Chef Kelli Crosson and Chef de Cuisine Ryan Dzierzawski teamed up with Urban Kitchen Group’s Chef Tim Kolanko and Eppig Brewing. Hosted on the outdoor patio, the event featured ocean trout brined in bourbon and brown sugar for up to 24 hours and then smoked over oak or apple wood for an hour more. To keep fish from sticking to the grill, Crosson says, “We keep the skin on the filet and place it on a stainless-steel roasting rack. Place [the] rack directly on the grill grate. The skin of the fish will stick to the roasting rack. When finished, you will be able to slide a spatula or spoon between the skin and the meat to easily serve.” Also on the menu during our visit: grilled oysters, a spring minestra of smoked spring onion and sweet pea tortellini, citrus salad, buttermilk smashed potatoes, grilled asparagus, and more — yum! 

Hot-smoked ocean trout was on the menu at “Playing with Fire,” the seasonal grilling series at The Grill at Torrey Pines. Executive Chef Kelli Crosson and Chef de Cuisine Ryan Dzierzawski (right) partnered with featured Chef Tim Kolanko (center) of Urban Kitchen Group
Hot-smoked ocean trout was on the menu at “Playing with Fire,” the seasonal grilling series at The Grill at Torrey Pines. Executive Chef Kelli Crosson and Chef de Cuisine Ryan Dzierzawski (right) partnered with featured Chef Tim Kolanko (center) of Urban Kitchen Group

On June 12, Crosson will welcome Chef Paul Arias from Oceana Coastal Kitchen to the Lodge to prepare a menu paired with pours from Ballast Point Brewing Co. in the next installment of the Playing with Fire Series. For more information and to reserve a spot, visit lodgetorreypines.com/culinary.

Bourbon Brined and Hot Smoked Ocean Trout with Sauce Gribiche

A collaboration between Chef Tim Kolanko of Urban Kitchen Group and The Lodge at Torrey Pines’ Executive Chef Kelli Crosson and Chef de Cuisine Ryan Dzierzawski

3 lb Ocean Trout Filet 
1 recipe Bourbon and Brown Sugar Brine
1 recipe Gribiche

  1. Using Oak or Apple wood, heat Grill or smoker to 225 degrees
  2. Smoke brined trout for approximately 1 hour or until cooked through
  3. Flake onto platter and spoon sauce gribiche over the top.  Enjoy!

Bourbon & Brown Sugar Brine (Chef Tim Kolanko)
240 gm Buffalo Trace Bourbon
480 gm water
30 gm brown sugar
15 gm kosher salt
1 each medium yellow onion, rough chopped
4 each garlic cloves, smashed
4 sprigs thyme
½ bunch parsley
1 Tbsp black peppercorn
2 tsp fennel seeds
½ tsp red pepper flakes
1 Tbsp grapeseed oil

  1. Heat grapeseed oil in saucepan over medium heat
  2. Once hot, add onion, garlic, fennel seed, peppercorn and red pepper flakes.
  3. Sweat until the onion is fragrant and translucent.
  4. Add bourbon and reduce liquid by half
  5. Add water, brown sugar, salt and herbs
  6. Bring to a boil, then remove from heat.  Let cool to room temperature or in the refrigerator overnight. 
  7. Pour over trout (or other protein) and let brine for at least 12 hours or up to 24 hours
  8. Remove protein from brine and pat dry.  Ideally let it dry overnight to create a pellicle for the smoke to stick to.

Sauce Gribiche (Chef Kelli Crosson, Chef Ryan Dzierzawski)
1 each hard-boiled egg, separate white from yolk
1 each shallots
1 Tbsp parsley, chopped
2 Tbsp chervil, chopped
2  Tbsp chive, chopped
1 Tbsp tarragon, chopped
½ each [½ lemon’s worth of] lemon zest
1 each [1 lemon’s worth of] lemon juice
1 Tbsp capers, finely chopped
3 each gherkins, finely chopped
¾ c olive oil
salt, to taste

  1. Chop egg white and yolk separately
  2. Combine all ingredients in a bowl except the lemon juice
  3. Stir the lemon juice into the gribiche just before serving
Bourbon Brined and Hot Smoked Ocean Trout with Sauce Gribiche
“Bourbon Brined and Hot Smoked Ocean Trout with Sauce Gribiche“ — a collaboration between Chef Tim Kolanko of Urban Kitchen Group and The Lodge at Torrey Pines’ Executive Chef Kelli Crosson and Chef de Cuisine Ryan Dzierzawski

Richard Blais is a chef, restaurateur, cookbook author, podcast host, and a veteran personality on television cooking shows. Widely recognized from Bravo’s Top Chef series, he was the first winner of Top Chef: All Stars and is now co-host of Next Level Chef with Gordon Ramsey and Nyesha Arrington on Fox. Blais has helped to create and launch some of the most innovative restaurants in San Diego including Juniper & Ivy, The Crack Shack, California English, and Ember & Rye at Park Hyatt Aviara Resort, Golf Club & Spa. The restaurant, with a massive outdoor grill overlooking the 18th hole, is known for steak, seafood, and creative, smoky cocktails. 

“There’s something about grilling, especially when using an open fire, that unlocks a part of our prehistoric brain,” says Blais. “Survival instinct kicks in when you can get a fire to start; an accomplishment that leads to sustenance from keeping that fire warm and glowing. This sounds romantic perhaps, but it is for me as soothing as looking out into the ocean. A wave of heat to be ridden, a wilderness to be explored.” 

Blais’ Tips to Master Your Backyard Grill:

  • When possible, use real hardwood. Many varieties will work, from California almond to walnut. Oak is well regarded as a wood that burns long and slow. For charcoal, try not to get those categorized as “easy lighting,” as they can be quite chemically constructed.
  • Give yourself an hour to start the fire and to get it burning hot, as you don’t want to smother your food with the taste of “bad” smoke. “Good” smoke burns a lot clearer.  
  • Cook more stuff on the grill. Pineapples, bananas in their peels, carrots that have been blanched in water first. Swiss chard and sturdy lettuces. 
  • For a great yet quick sauce, burn a red pepper, a jalapeño, a large tomato, and half an onion on the grill and whiz it all up in a blender with a little vinegar, salt, and honey. Experiment with this format, burning and blending different ingredients to make yummy sauces and condiments.
  • Use a pan on the grill for more delicate items. Even tossing pasta or rice in a pan over a grill will add a nice nuanced smoky flavor to the most basic dishes. 
  • When you are done grilling for the meal, as your fire is dying, toss in a whole skin of onion, beets, or hard squash and cook them in the embers of your grill. Retrieve them hours later when the grill cools, and you’ll be left with some amazingly deep flavors.
Richard Blais
Richard Blais

Grilled Santa Maria Steak with Charred Green Garlic Sauce

Serves 3-4 people

by Park Hyatt Aviara Chef Richard Blais

For the Steak:
1 piece of Tri tip, trimmed, approx. 22 oz.
salt & pepper (to taste) or your favorite steak seasoning
2 Tbsp olive oil

For The Sauce:
10 pieces of green garlic rinsed & outer layer peeled off
1 jalapeno
2 lemons, zested & cut in half
3 cloves garlic
1.5 cup parsley leaves
1 anchovy fillet (optional)
salt & pepper (to taste)
2 c good olive oil
1 Tbsp honey

Make sure to start your grill a good hour before you start cooking to get a nice bed of coals going, and be sure to push them to one side of the grill so you are able to use direct and indirect heat when necessary

For the Steak:

  1. Drizzle oil all over the trimmed tri tip and apply your chosen seasonings (at Ember & Rye, we use a version of Montreal Steak Seasoning, but just salt & pepper and a little granulated garlic would be fine)
  2. Once it is seasoned, you are going to place it on the opposite side of the coals and allow it to cook over indirect heat until it reaches a temperature of about 115-120F depending on the desired doneness (we prefer this cut to be cooked medium as it tends to have a slight chew to it when cooked more rare)
  3. Once you have reached 115-120F, you are going to move the steak over to the side with the coals and allow a crust to develop, feel free to get as much or as little char as you like, if it starts to get a little too charred, then move it over to the opposite side without the embers
  4. You are going to let it get to about 125F then remove from the grill and let it rest. The residual heat is going to continue to cook the steak until it gets to about 140F

For the Sauce:

  1. Take your green garlic stalks, jalapeno & zested lemons and place them on the grill directly over the embers, allowing them to cook until charred on the outside, about 5-7 minutes or until very charred on outside. Remove from heat and place in a bowl covered with plastic wrap. Once cooled enough to handle, peel the skin from the jalapeno & remove the seeds (or keep them if you want it to have a little more kick) and peel the outer layer of the green garlic.
  2. In a blender, add the green garlic, jalapeno, garlic cloves, parsley leaves & anchovy. Squeeze the juice from the lemons through a strainer to remove seeds and add to the blender as well. With the blender on high, slowly drizzle in the olive oil in a slow stream until it begins to emulsify. Add honey and season with salt and pepper. You can also add more lemon juice or vinegar if you wish. Continue blending on high for another 10 seconds then pour into a container

To Finish:

  1. Once the steak has rested, cut into desired thickness (slicing against the grain) and arrange on a platter. Season with finishing salt, and drizzle any of those resting juices back onto the meat.
  2. Drizzle the emulsified green garlic sauce over the slices of tri tip and feel free to garnish with fresh herbs like parsley, cilantro or chives to add a touch of freshness. Enjoy!

    Sam “The Cooking Guy” Zien, known for food that he calls “big in taste and small in effort,” is a self-described “regular guy who cooks great food. No cutesy platter. No frou-frou ingredients. Just easy, great tasting stuff served up with lots of humor.” Zien was the Emmy Award-winning host of Sam the Cooking Guy, the television show he launched in 2002 in his own Carmel Valley kitchen. He now has a show on YouTube with more than 3.5 million subscribers.

    Zien has also partnered with the Grain & Grit Collection on four restaurants in Little Italy: Not Not Tacos (think: smoky pork and mac-and-cheese), Samburgers (“big, good, and messy”), CooCoo’s Nest for hot chicken sandwiches, and Graze by Sam, an eatery and bar serving small plates, flatbreads, charcuterie boards, and cocktails. Zien is also working on his sixth book, Sam the Cooking Guy & the Holy Grill, due out next spring. 

    Zien’s Golden Grilling Rules:

    • Always start with a clean grill. A dirty grill is not just gross, but your food will cook much better and your chances of sticking go way down when the grill is clean.
    • Once the grill is preheated, but before you add any food, be sure to oil the grates.
    • Don’t add sweet sauces too early. The sugars in a sauce can burn, giving you the impression that the food is done when it’s not. You don’t have to start adding sauces until the final 5-10 minutes.
    • Always use an instant read thermometer. Don’t guess whether your mother-in-law’s steak is done! A $20 digital, instant-read thermometer will be your best friend at the grill.
    • Learn the “two-zone method”: one side “hot” and one side “not.” This lets you get a good sear and color on the hot side. Then, move food over to the other side to finish cooking more gently and evenly.
    • Let meat “rest” after taking it off the grill. Loosely tent with foil for about ten minutes to redistribute the juices.
    Sam Zien, best known as “Sam the Cooking Guy,” grills up lobster tails with garlic-ginger butter on his backyard barbecue
    Sam Zien, best known as “Sam the Cooking Guy,” grills up lobster tails with garlic-ginger butter on his backyard barbecue

    Garlic Ginger Lobster Tails

    by Sam “the Cooking Guy” Zien

    nothing to add flavor. But when the lobster goes on a hot grill, and the garlic/ginger butter drips onto the flames below…something magical happens.  

    And whether you serve them as one half of a surf & turf, made into a burrito with rice & beans or just to have all by itself because you’ve been good — you need to do this. 

    ½ c butter (1 stick)
    3 Tbsp sriracha
    2 cloves garlic, finely minced
    4 tsp minced fresh ginger
    2 Tbsp finely chopped chives, green onion or parsley
    juice of 1/2 lemon 
    4 lobster tails, 6-7 ounces each
    salt & coarse ground black pepper, to taste

    1. Clean and oil grill, heat grill to medium/high
    2. Combine all ingredients except tails in small bowl over low heat until melted, set aside
    3. Lay a lobster tail on the counter with the tail part furthest away from you
    4. Now put the point of one side of kitchen shears under the shell, but above the meat and cut up the middle of the shell towards the tail, but stop before you cut the tail
    5. Using the cut as your guide, take a knife and cut down through the meat but do not cut through the bottom shell/plate – whatever it’s called
    6. Pull back the sides of the shell like you’re opening a book to expose the meat and brush with some of the butter mixture
    7. Grill the tails, meat-side down for approximately 5 minutes, then turn over and cook another 3-4 minutes, basting often until done – and done is 135 degrees
    8. Remove, season with a little pinch of salt & pepper and serve with any extra sauce
    “Garlic Ginger Lobster Tails” by Sam “the Cooking Guy” Zien
    “Garlic Ginger Lobster Tails” by Sam “the Cooking Guy” Zien

    Jeffrey Strauss, the award-winning owner and executive chef of Pamplemousse Grille in Solana Beach, has catered and cooked for U.S. presidents, American and foreign dignitaries, moguls, and movie stars. But he most enjoys creating food that he loves to eat and serve to his family and friends. This summer, he looks forward to grilling “all kinds of steaks,” as well as seafood from Tommy Gomes’ Tunaville Market & Grocery at Driscoll’s Wharf. During our interview, Strauss checked in with Gomes, who reminded us to tune into Season 3 of The Fishmonger — starring Gomes himself — now airing on the Outdoor Channel and Amazon Prime Video.

    Strauss is a big fan of the Big Chief Smoker. He likes to lightly cold smoke shrimp, scallops, and lobster with 100% hickory wood chips before finishing on the grill or in his pizza oven. 

    Strauss is not only known for delicious food but his big heart. In May, he hosted Walden Family Service’s Summer Soiree, a fabulous alfresco barbecue dinner to benefit children and youth in foster care. 

    Strauss’ Grilling Tips:

    • Don’t use vegetable oil spray on the grill. Over time, it can clog up holes where the flames come out. Instead, wipe the grill with an oil-covered cloth.
    • Make sure the grill is very hot, so food won’t stick.
    • Season food right before you pop it on the grill or the salt will bring out the moisture in the protein. 
    • Keep it simple. Quality meat, poultry, and fish don’t require lots of seasoning. Consider a grind of kosher salt and Tellicherry peppercorns, larger peppercorns with a more complex flavor including citrusy notes.  
      Chef/Owner Jeffrey Strauss of Pamplemousse Grille fires up the pizza oven and grill on his ocean view terrace in Solana Beach
      Chef/Owner Jeffrey Strauss of Pamplemousse Grille fires up the pizza oven and grill on his ocean view terrace in Solana Beach

      Bone-in Rib Eye

      by Jeffrey Strauss of Pamplemousse Grille

      Rosemary sprigs
      Two 30-oz prime bone-in ribeye steaks
      15 cloves of peeled garlic
      1 c virgin olive oil
      1 c unsalted butter

      Melt oil and garlic over medium heat until garlic turns a light shade of brown. Remove from stove for five minutes and then pour over the steaks. Cover and refrigerate for 24 hours.

      1. Preheat a barbecue grill (or wood-fired pizza oven) at medium temperature for about 10-15 minutes.
      2. Remove steaks from marinade and scrape off/discard remaining marinade.
      3. Season steaks with kosher salt and cracked pepper.
      4. Take a large black skillet and place it on one side of the pre-heated grill. (If you have a wood-burning pizza oven, all the better. If so, preheat the pizza oven and when ready, place the skillet in the oven.) The skillet should be piping hot so pre-heat it when you “fire up” the barbecue. 
      5. Place the seasoned steaks on the grill and keep a careful eye on the flames so you don’t burn the steaks. Grill on both sides and ends. 
      6. Once you have grill marks on the steaks, char the steaks in the skillet on both sides. 
      7. Remove the steaks and crush the garlic cloves into the steaks. 
      8. Put the steaks back in the pan, add rosemary, and finish to the desired temperature. Using a meat thermometer, cook to 110 degrees for rate, 120 degrees for medium. 
      9. Let meat rest at least five minutes before slicing.
        “Bone-in Rib Eye“ by Jeffrey Strauss of Pamplemousse Grille
        “Bone-in Rib Eye“ by Jeffrey Strauss of Pamplemousse Grille


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